Big box retailers are like the weather: We all like to complain about them, but none of us ever do anything about them. But as entertaining as it is to hate them, and make jokes at their expense, the relationship between big box retail and boutique professional firms is nuanced and complex.
The business practices of big box retail can be enormously irritating: Running margins into the dirt, and the commoditization of not only products but services as well continues to make life harder than it needs to be for the industry.
I’ll let you in on a secret: Those practices aren’t just annoying for AV pros on the service side, they’re hugely aggravating for those of us on the distribution side. Manufacturers and distributors don’t like it either. A lot of effort is put into trying to show big box that there are better ways to sell. Sadly, these efforts are usually unsuccessful.
Ultimately, we’re all in the same ecosystem, and each of us fills our own niche. And, like actual ecosystems, all of us, large and small, depend on each other to some degree. So, to build on my ecosystem analogy, I’ll detail the ways in which the big box retailers benefit you, the boutique AV Pro, even if you don’t always recognize it.
First off, they’re a useful filter. Not everyone can or even should be your client. Regardless of whatever level of AV systems you specialize in, there are going to be price shoppers, DIY’ers, and people who are going to buy it on Amazon anyway. The presence of a big box store in your market means fewer of those people wandering by accident through your front door.
At the same time, the presence of that big box store gives you an opportunity to show the people who you need your services exactly why they should deal with you. It’s not hard to look substantially more competent and professional than the big box chains. Which brings me to the next point: the profit to be had fixing their screw-ups. Some customers end up having the big box store do installs for them, and it doesn’t always go well.
I’ve seen plenty of tragic “custom installs” that big-box installers have left behind in people’s homes, and I’m sure you have, too. On the bright side, I’ve never seen one that could be called criminally negligent, so let’s not be too hard on them. I’ve known quite a few dealers who’ve made a living coming to the aid of customers in distress. It’s not just a one-off profit opportunity, either; it’s opportunity to earn a client for life.
AV pros aren’t the only ones who can learn from their mistakes; customers can, too. I’ve seen people who needed to be bailed out of a sub-$5K install gone bad, come back and spend high five figures or more with a specialty AV pro, once they realized what they could really have done in their home in the first place.
Some AV pros understand that the big box is also the incubator (I was going to say “preschool” but that might seem demeaning) for future hires. For all the editorials I’ve written in the past about cross-pollination, and recruiting from other channels, retail remains a primary source for new hires into the design and installation channels. Not every kid working at the big box is a stereotypical underachiever. Many of them are hard working and eager to learn. If they’re smart and highly motivated, there’s a good chance that they won’t want to stay at a big box forever, and will start looking around for a place where their aptitude and passion for will be better compensated.
Don’t just see the local big box competition as either a threat or the butt of jokes (or both). Think about the opportunities they present and capitalize on them.